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Sun, Feb 10, 2019

Called as Witnesses

Duration:16 mins 58 secs

"Called as Witnesses"

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8, Luke 5:1-11

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

So, another biblical fishing story. They seem to always end the same way: “They left everything and followed him.” They left their nets, their boats, their livelihoods, and their families, everything that made them respectable citizens, to follow this compelling itinerant preacher who gives them glimpses of the kingdom of God. Actually, there are some biblical fishing stories that don’t end this way; it is only in the Gospels that the fishing context is so positive. In the Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls, fishing is a metaphor for gathering people for judgment: God the fisherman casts a great wide dragnet to haul in the sinful. But in the Gospels, fishing for people means calling them to be part of the kingdom of God.

Still, Peter and James and John and the other disciples had no idea of what they were letting themselves in for. When they left their boats they didn’t know that the man they were following was on a collision course with the forces of the Roman state and official religion, and that they would be caught up in the state machinery that was conspiring to catch and entrap their leader. They didn’t know yet that responding to Jesus’s call would eventually put them on a collision course with those same authorities. His voice was compelling, so they went.

When the priest Isaiah volunteered himself to be God’s prophet that day in the Temple of Jerusalem, he didn’t know what he was getting into, either. When he says “Send me,” he doesn’t know he will be sent to speak the truth of God to people incapable of hearing it. He will preach to people living comfortable yet precarious lives, trusting more in their country’s military than in God, and not one word Isaiah says to them will ever change them. Eventually their comfortable yet precarious way of life will come crashing down around them, bringing the prophet with them in the destruction. All he will have is the very cold comfort of saying, “I told you so.”

In both Isaiah and the Gospel story, God is the great spoiler of everyday peace and quiet. Prophet and disciples-to-be are just going about their lives – worshiping, fishing, doing their jobs -- when God suddenly and ruthlessly barges in and enlists them for purposes of God’s own choosing.

When God enters Isaiah’s and Peter’s field of awareness, they are both overcome by a sense of their sinfulness. “Woe is me! I am lost,” cries Isaiah, “for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen [God]!” “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” cries Peter. It is the stricken awe of the creature before the Creator, a combination of dread and wonder, the sudden overpowering sense of being nothing, dust and ashes, in the presence of holiness.

Here’s the thing, though: God will not let human sin get in the way of what God wants to do. God doesn’t let sin disqualify a person from being of use. God doesn’t let people know how sinful they are to condemn them or humiliate them. God simply wants to cleanse them and purify them and then use them as witnesses. A seraph (literally, a “burning one”) touches a live coal to Isaiah’s lips to cleanse him and prepare him for his truth-telling mission. Jesus, who must have radiated a different kind of heat, tells Peter cowering in the boat not to be afraid. God won’t let them stay stuck in their sin, because sin is pretty unproductive.

Some of you may remember the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” in which God commissions King Arthur and his knights to look for the Grail. “Arthur, King of the Britons,” God thunders from heaven and then, as Arthur falls to the ground whimpering, God admonishes him not to grovel. “One thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling….And don’t apologize. Every time, I talk to someone, it’s ‘sorry this’ and ‘sorry that’ and ‘I’m not worthy.’” I think this was essentially the message to Isaiah and Peter: there’s a time for confessing and repenting, but then you need to get on with what God wants you to do.

God can deal with the sin -- but the Bible’s unvarying message to prophets and apostles, to the “called” of every generation, is still “This is going to cost you.” In one way or another, from Isaiah to Peter to the saints of the early church and the saints of today, men and women have decided that responding to that call was worth the cost. It was how they got to live as close to God as humanly possible, and how they got to touch eternity in the here and now. It was how they felt more energized, purposeful, and alive than they had ever felt before. That call was something burning inside them like a fire, propelling them into the world as witnesses to something most people had never seen or experienced.

Karl Barth, arguably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, said that the thing that makes a person a Christian is his or her calling to be a witness. That sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it? That’s not what we usually think of. If someone asks, “What is a Christian?” we might say, A Christian is someone who knows his sins are forgiven through Jesus Christ. Someone who has accepted the grace of God in Christ. Someone who looks forward to eternal life with Christ. All these things are true, but they are not, according to Barth, the main thing. That’s because all these answers have to do with simply being a beneficiary. That’s not wrong, of course, but Barth says it’s way too self-centered. The main thing is being a witness. Every Christian is supposed to be like someone called to the witness box in a courtroom to say what they have seen and heard and experienced.

Every Christian, Barth said. Not just preachers and missionaries and church professionals. People who follow Jesus Christ and have put their trust in him should be able to say something about where they have found hope, or comfort, or peace, or a deeper awareness of things, a deeper caring for the world. They should be able to say something about how their lives are changed, how they are changed, as a result of knowing this person, Jesus Christ.

God puts people in the way of Christ not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of the world. Now that we have been forgiven and accepted, we are supposed to do something with the information we have.

The new Neighborhood Outreach team will soon be planning some events that will give us the opportunity to meet some of our neighbors and for them to meet us. Some of them may come just for the food, and that is fine – we’ll get a chance to show some hospitality and enjoy their company – but one or two of them may want to know more about us. “What is it that you believe?” someone may ask. “How is your life any different because of this?” Then you will be in the witness box. What will you do with the information you have? (I’m not suggesting we accost perfectly nice people in the name of Jesus, but we do need to be able to “give an accounting of the hope that it in us,” as the New Testament says.) That’s what it means to be a witness.

God didn’t have to work it this way, I suppose. God could go to each person one by one and accost them in some unsettling and unforgettable way, as God did with Isaiah and Peter. But that’s not how God has decided to work in the world on an everyday basis. God has decided not to work alone, but to include us, not just a few select individuals but all of us.

Stepping into that witness box can feel risky and uncomfortable and unsettling, of course. But it’s not something we ever have to do alone. We have each other and we have the Spirit of Christ, and he will never desert us.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

February 10, 2019


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